Ruling the roost

Last week, in a space not very far from this one, our own Bagehot offered his thoughts on the fading British doctrine of ministerial responsibility. Time was when cabinet officials would resign if their department made any serious error. Now, says Bagehot, ``if a policy goes wrong, the minister is liable to resign. But if its implementation goes wrong, his responsibility is limited to disciplining those responsible and making sure it does not happen again.''

Washington readers will be forgiven their bemusement over such quaintly straightforward calculations. There, the official charged with the president's most spectacularly failed policy - health-care reform - cannot resign, for she is his wife. The official who concocted the disastrous plan embodying that policy, Ira Magaziner, retains an office (with a balcony and a lovely view of the Corcoran Gallery) in which he busies himself these days with pursuits no one can quite identify. Meanwhile the axe falls elsewhere: on Mike Espy, the reform-minded agriculture secretary who resigned on October 3rd because of such grievous sins as accepting free tickets to football games.

There is, of course, more to it than that. Since February Mr Espy has been fighting off symptoms of that most endemic of Washington maladies: an ``appearance of impropriety''. First came revelations that he had been treated to trips, parties and sporting events by agricultural firms; then allegations that such goodies - especially from Tyson Foods, a big Arkansas poultry company tied closely to Bill Clinton - had led to favourable regulatory treatment. In the weeks that followed, Mr Espy tried to make amends by paying back $7,500 to firms and government for dubious trips and expenses, including a leased Jeep in his home town that taxpayers financed. But when the White House discovered that a foundation run by Tyson had given his girlfriend a college scholarship, it was made clear to him that his time was up.

Mr Espy's story is widely seen as a classic Washington morality tale. At 32, he became the first black congressman from Mississippi since Reconstruction; at 38, he persuaded Mr Clinton - with a hastily scribbled note listing 10 reasons why he deserved the job - to make him the youngest and the first black secretary of agriculture. Energetic and unconventional (he supports the death penalty and the NRA), Mr Espy arrived with plans to shake up his bloated department and dreams of one day becoming Mississippi's governor. Then came the fall.

How could it happen? Perhaps Mr Espy forgot to shed his congressional ways; House members routinely accept everything from free front-row seats to Hawaiian holidays. Perhaps, as he claims, Mr Espy was merely so busy - and disorganised - that he failed to keep track of his own affairs. Perhaps he just got greedy. The one thing everyone agrees on, however, is that Mr Espy (particularly as part of an administration that pledged itself to a higher standard of probity) went too far. He had to go.

Yet there is something disturbing - indeed dangerous - about this view. It is no doubt true that what Mr Espy did was wrong. It is also true that it was, as even his most puritanical critics admit, pretty petty stuff. What lurks behind their worries anyway is the Agriculture Department's long and vaguely infamous history as an agency beholden to the industries in its purview. These industries are powerful indeed. Yet to assume that the source of their influence lies in a few cheap pay-offs to whoever happens to be secretary assumes not just that politicians are almost impossibly venal, but that the real problems with the Agriculture Department are personal, not institutional.

Wrong. Consider that the department's sweeping charter gives it responsibility both for promoting farm incomes and products and for inspecting meat and poultry for bacteria. Put aside the economic insidiousness of the first set of responsibilities. Should the same agency really be charged with being a partner to industry, concerned mainly with its profits, and with regulating its products, concerned mainly with public safety?

The dangers here are all too evident. For years the man in charge of regulating meat and poultry products was known informally within those industries as ``our man in Washington''; and the question of bacterial inspection proved a controversial one for Mr Espy, about which the facts are not yet clear. But so long as the department tries to be both a booster and a stern watchdog, conflicts of interest will be inherent in the secretary's job - whoever he happens to be, and whether or not he goes to the Super Bowl with the boys from Tyson.

That personal peccadillos absorb more attention than institutional issues is perhaps not surprising. Scandals are sexy; subjects like ``regulatory capture'' are not. And there are increasing numbers of the former about. According to Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, since the mid-1970s the number of indictments of public officials has grown by some 1,500%. The press, accordingly, has devoted ever more space to scandal (or the appearance of it) and ever less to how government works.

This scandal-centricity is often fun and occasionally enlightening; but it has some nasty side effects, too. One is that it creates the impression - almost certainly untrue - that politicians today are more crooked than they were in the past. More seriously, the focus on petty illegalities obscures the truth that the real scandal in politics is what goes on within the rules. Some voters may cheer if Congress, despite having failed once again to reform its system of campaign finance, passes a bill to limit the value of gifts its members can take from lobbyists. But what is likely to be more corrupting: a nice meal, which lobbyists will no longer be able to buy for a congressman, or a $5,000 campaign cheque, which will still be just fine? Maybe Mike Espy knows the answer.

The Economist, October 8, 1994